Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where the line between fiction and nonfiction exists—specifically creative nonfiction. When we read a textbook or a biography of some dead president or washed-up celebrity, we expect what we’re reading to be factual. For it to have actually happened. And if the names change (more than likely to protect someone’s identity) we are accepting of that. But with creative nonfiction, when stories read more like novels, when, you think, there’s no way they can possibly remember each of these experiences with as much detail as they’ve just conjured, it’s easy to forget that this “story” was actually someone’s life.
In case you have no clue what creative nonfiction is (I wouldn’t blame you), Lee Gutkind, the founder of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, has said it’s “true stories well told.” That’s the most succinct definition you’ll find. It’s not made up. It’s fact. But the telling of those facts reads like fiction. There’s dialouge. Description. A narrative arc. But as Gutkind reminds us, there is still a cardinal rule present in creative nonfiction and that rule is that the author can’t make “stuff” up.
So that’s the line then, I suppose. Only it’s more complicated than that (of course it is). In a piece the journalist Roy Peter Clark wrote for Gutkind’s magazine, he says, “To make things more complicated, scholars have demonstrated the essential fictive nature of all memory. The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a problematic form in which reality and imagination blur.”
In the process of writing creative nonfiction, you are forced to make “stuff” up. Dialouge, for one. Since the majority of us do not walk around this planet carrying recording devices in our pockets, we are left to our own faulty memories to call upon. For those of us who tend to be part-elephant—never forgetting—this is easier. Interviewing friends and family, recording down their own memories, is another way to get your “facts” down. The problem is, we each have our own perspectives. How many times have you heard a friend tell another friend a story. A story that you were present for. And suddenly that story becomes brighter, exaggerated, taking on a life of its own. “I don’t remember it that way,” you might say. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
And then there are the things which you can’t say for sure are real or not. I have this memory. I’ve had it most of my life. I was six or seven years old, and I was sitting at the edge of the couch in the den of my childhood home when I saw a penny sitting on the carpet, right in front of the entertainment center. I can’t remember if the TV was on, but it must have been. Probably playing Barney, which I was obsessed with at that time. And when I saw the penny lying there, I went to pick it up. I held it in front of my face with my thumb and index finger for a moment, and then I plopped it on my tongue, the metallic taste seeping into my mouth, before I swallowed it. And when I did, I was suddenly on the ground. The entertainment center on top of me. I don’t remember being crushed or being scared. I just remember being there. Lying on the rough carpet, pinned beneath the wood shelves and TV, until someone must have found me. But when I told my mother about this years later, she told me it must have been a dream. It never happened.
To me, that memory is so vivid that I can almost still taste that penny. And to this day, I’m not entirely convinced it didn’t happen, even while simultaneously being inclined to believe that if it did happen, I don’t think that’s the kind of memory that would have slipped away from my mother so easily. But that’s not the point. Whether it did happen or didn’t, it’s still a part of my story. It’s become real to me.
When I read the The Bell Jar for the first time, people called it a “semi-autobiography.” For the life of me, I can’t think of one other book that’s been described this way. I suppose A Million Little Pieces is in that vein—stories that are based on events from the author’s life but are so distorted in the telling that they can no longer be considered fact. Is that where the “creative” part of creative nonfiction comes in? Or, with a few tweaks to their own story (their life), has the author crossed into fiction?
I don’t think these lines will ever become less blurred. In the case of A Million Little Pieces, James Frey knew he was deceiving the world. His untruths were not perception. They were not due to a faulty memory. They were, according to him, the same demons that led him to drugs in the first place. He invented people, his girlfriend Lily. He invented her suicide. He invented his criminal record. He lied—thus breaking the cardinal rule. And his lies would have been acceptable, if he had, from the get go, acknowledged them the way that Plath’s book was acknowledged to be only “based” on her life, something not entirely intended to represent the truth. But he didn’t, and so his readers felt deceived.
And that right there, deceiving the readers, I think that’s the line. That’s the line you never cross. Writers, by nature, tend to write “what they know.” Especially with works deemed as literary. Your life is allowed to influence your work. Even fiction, like Plath’s The Bell Jar, is allowed to to reflect on your own story. But you have to admit to your readers that it is not your life. That it is not, actually, your story. In creative nonfiction, no one expects every word that escapes a character’s mouth, that every movement of their body, occurred in just that way. In fact, most often, readers do not even expect the order of events to be completely accurate. Because, as Clark noted, our memories are fictive. What readers do expect, however, is that you are faithful to the story and to them. That you capture the spirit of your memories. That you attempt, as best as you can, to relay that story to the best of your ability. That you research. That you conduct interviews. You can be creative, but readers will not forgive a liar.